For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

The allure of Picton and Queen Charlotte Sound

Far from being just a port town, bustling, forest-clad Picton is a holiday gem and alluring launch-pad for savouring Queen Charlotte Sound, as Mike Yardley writes.

The sheer size of the Marlborough Sounds is astonishing, comprising 20% of New Zealand’s coastline, brimming with countless coves and secluded sandy bays. Thick native bush surrounds these ancient drowned valleys, where the calm, translucent water spans azure blue, vivid turquoise and shimmering emerald hues. Ongoing downward tectonic movement means the Marlborough Sounds continue to slowly sink. For stress-free exploration, launch yourself into the glory of Queen Charlotte Sound from the waterfront port town of Picton.

Picton Marina, Picton, New Zealand
Picton Marina, Picton, New Zealand. Photo: Mike Yardley

The waterfront port town of Picton

The glossy deep blue water surrounding Picton Marina, gleamed like a nautical jewel and photo-shoot ready. Picton had dawned bright, brilliant and seductive. Families were taking the air on the velvety grass waterfront, while swanky cafes were humming with morning trade in their horse-shoe curve edging the sparkling harbour. A great stroll to start your day is to cross the marina footbridge around to Shelley Beach and take the walking trail to Bob’s Bay. This short and sweet constitutional edges the harbour, a stirring vantage point to watch the ferries pulling out of Picton. Hordes of tourists eagerly took their pick from the host of tempting activities touting for business at the marina, spanning kayaking excursions to dive charters out to the sunken Mikhail Lermontov.

Picton waterfront
Picton waterfront. Photo: Mike Yardley

Prior to boarding my scenic cruise on Queen Charlotte Sound, I headed to the hip new waterfront venue, Toastie Picton, which has been busy turning heads and seducing passers-by, with its gourmet sourdough toasted sandwiches, all made with their in-house four cheese blend. I ordered up an Ivan, consisting of pastrami, sauerkraut and pickle. Delish! Another hot-seller is their Pete toastie, which combines salmon with cream cheese, capers and pickles.

Cruising on Queen Charlotte Sound

I plumped for a day trip with one of the region’s oldest tourist operators, Beachcomber Cruises. Keen to combine cruising with a spot of walking, my magical day out would whisk me to Ship Cove, before re-boarding the vessel for the home-run from Furneaux Lodge. Departing from Picton, my ebullient skipper, Steve, peppered the cruise commentary with a feast of fascinating insights. We gazed out across to the Edwin Fox, before passing by Kaipupu Wildlife Sanctuary, a prized mainland island that serves as a crèche for Kiwi.

Bottlenose dolphin at Queen Charlotte Sound
Bottlenose dolphin at Queen Charlotte Sound. Photo: Mike Yardley

Brimming with predator-free islands and marine reserves, ogling precious wildlife is an undisputed magnet, luring the world to their crystal-clear waters. Steve remarked that alongside the Hector’s, Dusky and Bottlenose Dolphins, whales are a constant sight in the Sounds. As are seals, stingrays and orcas. Steve recently saw a juvenile pygmy Blue Whale cruising in Queen Charlotte. We rendezvoused with some salmon farms, heavily fortified in perimeter fencing to stop the fur seals doing a drive-by feed.

Cook monument at Ship Cove
Cook monument at Ship Cove. Photo: Mike Yardley

The history surrounding the Sounds

During Cook’s second visit to New Zealand in 1773, his crew caught one of these beautiful birds and took it home to England. As you do. The sheer size of the Sounds is astonishing, comprising 20% of New Zealand’s coastline, brimming with countless coves and secluded sandy bays. Thick native bush surrounds these ancient sunken valleys, where the calm, translucent water spans azure blue, vivid turquoise and shimmering emerald hues.  Throughout the 1770s, sheltered Ship Cove provided safe anchorage, food, water and timber for Captain Cook and his crew on five separate occasions, marking some of the earliest sustained contact between Māori and Europeans. Disembarking from our boat, we were struck by the huge landslide tumbling down the hillside – triggered by a major aftershock from the Kaikoura quake. I dabbled in the creek where Cook made home brew for his crew before surveying the magnificent Captain Cook monument commemorating his visits to the area. He hoisted the Union Jack and proclaimed sovereignty of the South Island in 1770, at Motuara Island.

Walking on Queens Charlotte’s track

After soaking up the history and the endearing beauty of Ship Cove, largely unchanged from Cook’s days, and with my walking boots firmly laced up, I struck out for a taster of the Queen Charlotte Track. Combining a supreme walking and biking experience, with a seamless network of cruise and pack transfers, the resorts and lodges sprinkled along the route showcase the region’s superlative food and wine. It’s also open to mountain biking from March 1 to November 30 each year, taking about 13 hours to complete. If you’re walking it, the full traverse from Ship Cove to Anakiwa is a three or four day affair, but itching for a sample of this celebrated trek, I embarked on the first day’s section to Furneaux Lodge. Fashioned from pioneering era bridle paths, the track was officially opened by DOC in 1991, in conjunction with private landowners, who continue to help its maintenance.

Queen Charlotte track
Queen Charlotte track. Photo: Mike Yardley

A bush walk at its best

The 15km section starts with a steep, thigh-burning haul, climbing away from the beach, through regenerating native forest. But after that initial gut-buster, the rest of the four hour long trail was a breeze, with gentle undulations up and down panoramic ridgelines. Gregariously chirping fantails, fluting tui calls and the limpid notes dropped by bellbirds were a constant avian soundtrack, as I threaded my way through forests of manuka, kanuka, tawa, tree ferns and beech. Curious weka shuffled by, wood pigeons whooshed, but I didn’t see any wild pigs – first released in these parts by Cook. The lookout point at Tawa Saddle serves up seraphic views across Queen Charlotte Sound, while more pixel-burning vantage points loom large as you descend into Resolution Bay.

Top views from the track
Top views from the track. Photo: Mike Yardley

Feeling jelly-legged, I toddled across the finish line with a flourish, sweetly surrendering to the laid-back hospitality embrace of Furneaux Lodge.  Built by the Howden family over 110 years ago, the original homestead was thronging with thirsty patrons, chilling out and swapping tales, before boarding the boat at 5pm for the return run to Picton, as another pod of frisky dolphins shepherded us home. What a golden day in a legendary pocket of wild New Zealand. 

Furneaux Lodge
Furneaux Lodge. Photo: Mike Yardley

A strikingly unique experience in Picton is to explore the Edwin Fox Museum, which juts out from the foreshore on Dunbar Wharf. This is home to the world’s second oldest surviving merchant sailing ship, and the only surviving ship that transported convicts to Australia. Built in 1853, she also carried settlers to New Zealand and carried troops in the Crimean War. But unlike the Vasa in Sweden or the Mary Rose in the UK, what I love about the Edwin Fox is you can walk down into its hull and up on its deck, to the bunk beds previously slept in by Australia-bound convicts. It’s a magnificent nugget of maritime history.

Edwin Fox Museum, Picton. Photo: Mike Yardley

Where to stay:

Where to stay? In the heart of Picton I stayed at the well-appointed, generously-equipped Aldan Lodge Motel. If you’re travelling with your furry friends, they’re very welcome too. I locked in the Aldan through who offer a diverse array of options from hotels and apartments to holiday homes and campsites, no matter what your budget is. Whether you’re on the website or via the app, is super easy to use with incredible deals and complete flexibility, whether you need to amend or cancel your plans.

Also read: Great stays and South Island historic pubs